From the Professional Team

Leveraging Networks for Jewish Engagement & Learning

September 5th, 2012

During the past six years, Jim Joseph Foundation grantees have demonstrated that peer relationships and the networks supporting those relationships create value.  This month, the release of a two-year evaluation summary report of Hillel’s Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Entrepreneurial Initiative (SJE-CEI) will further evidence the correlation between networks, educators, and effective Jewish engagement.  Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the report points clearly “to the value of relationships — with peers and authentic teachers — as well as the power of Jewish learning that is contextual and relevant in the lives of young Jews today.”

There is no question that relationship-based networks play an increasingly prominent role in the lives of Jewish youth and young adults, as they do in society at large. (Enter “learning in peer networks” into Google and 5.5 million results will appear.)  Some scholars contend that for the first time in history, peers’ influence on one another is as potent, or even more so, than that of their parents (see Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption).  Even as Jewish institutions and organizations face challenges developing approaches that effectively attract and engage young Jews, networks flourish.

As a result, some Jewish organizations are beginning to build networks of their own. These networks are frequently self-organized, organic, accessible in real time, and, by definition, non-hierarchical. Along with these key characteristics, Hillel has found networks simultaneously offer college students the “roles of follower and leader, teacher and student, connector and expert – networks facilitate belonging and connectedness…”.  Importantly, college students fill these roles within the framework of a peer network, engaging with individuals to whom they strongly relate.

Reboot, another Jim Joseph-supported organization, sees itself as a “robust, complex, thoughtfully designed, and evolving network.”  Like Hillel, Reboot operates on the premise that networked peers meaningfully involve one another in informed, spirited Jewish conversation “about identity, community, and meaning.”

Both the Hillel SJE-CEI evaluation conducted by Cohen, Ukeles, Kopelowitz, and Wolf and the Taylor and Plastrik social network analysis of Reboot demonstrate that, particularly within a network, educational experts can motivate young Jews to explore their Judaism with a sense of intentionality and interest that would not have occurred without an educator’s inspiration.  Educators often serve highly functional roles in networks as resource providers, conveners, facilitators, and content curators.

The assessments of Hillel’s SJE-CEI initiative and Reboot’s networks also show that peer encounters matter, be they face-to-face or virtual.  Jewish peer networks foster familiarity with Jewish customs; often encourage inventive renewal of traditions to suit contemporary taste; and, in instances where a network is curated, “enable participants to propagate diverse perspectives” and even, potentially, “to establish and rewrite community norms.”

There is understandable anxiety in the Jewish world about fracture of community and growing social isolationism, some of it exacerbated by technology.  But from the Jim Joseph Foundation’s point of view, the extraordinarily powerful convergence of social network platforms, the internet, and mobile connectedness represents a unique moment in history and a chance to build stronger networks than previously existed.

We have seen only the early results of young Jewish peers with shared interests exploring Judaism together, in networks.  But already, choosing to shape their personal identity in this collective manner is a proven force for infusing their young Jewish lives with meaning.  This bodes well for a next generation of educated, committed Jews, and the Jim Joseph Foundation will thus continue to seek opportunities and partners that build Jewish peer networked learning initiatives.